The following first appeared in The National on August 23, 2010
When the nuclear reactor in Braka begins generating electricity sometime in 2017, the UAE will not only be the first Arab nation to produce nuclear energy. It will also have the first nuclear programme in the world that is "peaceful by design".
This phrase has been used to describe a nuclear programme that cannot produce nuclear weapons. According to a UAE official involved in the programme, this was the government's intent when it set about to bring nuclear energy to the UAE. "We wanted to make our programme not only safe and transparent but completely proliferation-proof." This is an important consideration in a region long considered a hub and possible source for the proliferation of nuclear materials.
Some members of the US Congress gave proliferation concerns as reasons to block the US-UAE nuclear co-operation agreement. That is one reason why nuclear energy has taken so long to catch on in a rapidly growing and energy-hungry Middle East. But according to Mark Fitzpatrick, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, fear of proliferation is not the main reason for the region's relative slowness to join the nuclear energy club.
"There is just as much, if not more fear, of proliferation today as there was then. If it were a contributing factor, it would be more relevant today when the proliferation concerns are more real," he said. According to Mr Fitzpatrick, the real reasons are much more practical. Nuclear energy is expensive and some projects in the Middle East ran into financial difficulty. "In addition, nuclear energy was not a high priority given the abundance of oil and gas resources in much of the Middle East." However, with rising oil prices and diminishing oil and gas reserves, nuclear energy is becoming more attractive.
Nevertheless, proliferation is a fear the UAE wished to allay. To meet the peaceful-by-design standard, the UAE had to forgo the right to enrich uranium and reprocess spent nuclear fuel. "If you look at nuclear technology for peaceful purposes there are two cross-overs where the technology that is used in the peaceful, civil nuclear industry is also used in military nuclear weapons. Those two points are enrichment and reprocessing," said the UAE official, who declined to be named.
The UAE's decision to forgo enrichment and reprocessing has had a profound effect on other Arab countries wishing to develop nuclear energy. It has set a precedent that helps ensure the eventual success of any nuclear energy programme in the region: US co-operation. A Middle Eastern country hoping to develop nuclear energy can seek technology from a country other than the US. But to run a safe and economically feasible programme, a nuclear cooperation agreement with Washington is considered essential. Without it, the UAE official said, "you find yourself in a licensing scenario where every component and every piece of material has to be licensed separately. It is very difficult to manage a project in those circumstances."
Before it signed a deal with South Korea in December for its nuclear technology, for instance, the UAE reached an agreement with the US, "because ultimately much of the technology has a US thumbprint on it," the UAE official said. In entering a nuclear accord with the US, Abu Dhabi has set the "gold standard for American nuclear co-operation with other countries", said Mr Fitzpatrick. "When the UAE first agreed to [the nuclear pact with Washington], it had an immediate positive ripple effect. Bahrain and Saudi Arabia both agreed to similar undertakings in their preliminary nuclear co-operation agreements with the United States."
Of all the countries in the region pursuing nuclear energy, only Jordan appears reluctant to embrace the UAE precedent of "peaceful by design" as a cornerstone of its fledgling nuclear energy programme. "Jordan has said that it does not want to give up its rights under Article four of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty to enrich uranium in the future, because it has uranium resources it wants to exploit", said Mark Hibbs, a senior associate in the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's Nuclear Policy Program.
The need for Jordan to sign on to the same deal as the UAE creates problems for the US, according to Mr Hibbs. "In the context of the US-UAE agreement, it was framed giving the UAE most-favoured-nation status, should the US in the future negotiate an agreement that would be more favourable to another country, whether it be Saudi, Jordan or what have you, then the UAE would feel it had the right to renegotiate its agreement with the US."
The UAE official admits this is a possible scenario, but believes it has been exaggerated. "A lot of people worry about this, I think disproportionately so." While the UAE would have the right under the terms of the agreement to petition for a new negotiation on nuclear cooperation, "as a practical matter, the UAE is not going to ask for that right. We've made the decision not because it was imposed on us. We made the decision because it was our sovereign choice."
"For somebody to suspect that just because some other country in the Middle East decided that it wanted to have this right [to enrich uranium], that we would abandon our aspiration is not logical. We adopted that policy because we thought it was the right policy for us." But for Mr Hibbs, the issue is not simply whether the UAE chooses to embrace enrichment if Jordan does. "The concern is whether or not this agreement will sustain itself as the standard for such agreements worldwide, the answer is at this point very uncertain."
However, there are other, more practical reasons why Jordan may yet decide to forgo enrichment rights. The UAE did not simply set aside those rights to set a good example for the rest of the world. "Aside from the moral high road and the nonproliferation consideration, there is a cold hard calculation underpinning all of this: enrichment facilities are extremely expensive and developing these facilities doesn't make any sense," said the UAE official. Enriching uranium "would be a financial burden on the programme and would simply lead to higher-cost electricity."
Enriching uranium produces fuel that is more than twice the price of fuel on the open market. It makes sense for only large-scale operations and for energy security. According to Mr Fitzpatrick, "the economies of scale dictate that one have something around 10 reactors before it makes economic sense to produce one's own enriched uranium fuel rather than buying it from the international marketplace, where it is readily available."
Additionally, requirements set by many nuclear supplier states would hamper a country's ability to import technology and materials should they embrace enrichment. Since enrichment is used in both civil and military purposes, many countries would find it politically difficult to work with a country that does not forgo enrichment. Again, this would lead to higher costs of electricity since it would limit the pool of potential suppliers.
This is yet another reason why the UAE decided not to pursue enrichment, the UAE official said. "The UAE's strategy has always been to have access to all of the major nuclear suppliers, both in terms of technology and also materials and fuel, so that we can ensure the long-term sustainability of the programme and stability of supply, components, know-how and fuel." All eyes will be on the UAE as it makes its foray into the world of nuclear energy. Not only has it set a new standard for the peaceful use of nuclear energy, but it will test the practicality of civilian nuclear energy development in a volatile region.
Mr Hibbs said the UAE must closely guard the technology and materials. "One of the dangers is that it is much easier to disguise illicit nuclear trade if it happens in a country where there is a budding nuclear energy development project. That permits a lot of goods to flow in and out. This can be used to camouflage illicit activity that is unrelated to the nuclear energy development project, but has to be stopped to prevent the country from being misused as an entrepôt for proliferation."
According to the official involved with the project, the UAE is well aware of the increased scrutiny. "The UAE is trying to demonstrate the advantages of a system that hopefully other countries will independently choose. Some will and some won't, but if 40 per cent of the countries that adopt nuclear power for the first time in the next decade adopt the UAE model, it will have been a massive contribution to nonproliferation. Even if it is 10 per cent or even just one, it will have had a tangible effect on nuclear security."